President Obama's announcement last week that 10,000 troops would leave Afghanistan this year set off a political firestorm, with Democrats accusing Obama of withdrawing too few troops and Republicans accusing him of withdrawing too many.
Lost in the fireworks is that the first waves of battlefield changes will generally involve shifting troops around within Afghanistan, not taking them out of the country entirely. The administration's plans call for a phased withdrawal of two combat brigades of 5,000 troops each, with the first beginning to withdraw next month and the second starting to leave this fall. Bringing that many troops-and all of their equipment-out of a landlocked country like Afghanistan will take several months, and military officials privately acknowledge that the second of the brigades may not be fully back in the U.S. until early 2012.
The U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan will nevertheless start to change noticeably in the months ahead. In public comments recently, Gen. David Petraeus and other senior military officers have laid out a roadmap of sorts for the coming troop movements.
Drawing on a model first used in Iraq, Petraeus and his top commanders are planning a gradual process of "thinning out" the number of forces in relatively stable areas of Afghanistan to free up troops who can then be shifted to dicier parts of the country. As in Iraq, local security forces are meant to fill the void left by the departing American forces.
During his confirmation hearing last week for his new post at the helm of the Central Intelligence Agency, Petraeus said coalition forces had already shifted out of some parts of the country-including the areas in and around Kabul-and handed security responsibility off to the Afghans. He said coalition forces planned to move to parts of the former Taliban stronghold of Helmand province this fall, with further redeployments set for next spring and next fall.
"We're not just going to come out and hand off," he said. "We'll thin out and indeed hand off to Afghan forces."
Petraeus pointedly stressed that moving forces out of stable areas like central Helmand would ensure the U.S. could be "thickened in certain areas" by the infusion of the redeployed troops.
Senior military officials said in recent interviews that they're considering gradually shifting several thousand troops to eastern Afghanistan, a violent region that is being menaced by the regular infiltration of militants from neighboring Pakistan.
Many of those troops will come from southern Afghanistan, long the focus of the overall war effort. There are currently just over 31,000 troops in eastern Afghanistan, compared with 38,000 in the south. Under some redeployment plans, the officials said, the number of troops in the two regions would gradually equalize.
In the internal deliberations before Wednesday's drawdown announcement, meanwhile, Obama signed off on plans to dispatch new special-operations forces to the east, according to an administration official. The new troops will take part in interdiction efforts along the border and escalate the U.S.-led offensive against the Haqqani network, the official said.
In a little-noticed briefing last week, the top American commander in Helmand offered a detailed roadmap of what those redeployments would look like.
Maj. Gen. John Toolan, the senior U.S. commander in the province, said he was preparing to take troops out of areas that appear to be firmly under Afghan or coalition control-like the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah-and redeploy them to northern Helmand and other regions that continue to see regular insurgent violence.
Speaking from his base in Helmand's Camp Leatherneck last week, Toolan told reporters that he hoped to reduce the U.S. presence in relatively stable towns like Nawa and Garmsir by roughly 1,500 troops in coming months. Those forces would then be sent to rougher areas like the restive northern Helmand villages of Now Zad and Musa Qala, he said.
"It's a thinning-out process," Toolan said. "Even now we are reducing the number of patrol bases and reinforcing those numbers into larger U.S.-coalition patrol bases while the Afghans take the lead in the bases that we're thinning out from."
Toolan, a two-star Marine general, said he would begin transferring control of Lashkar Gah to the Afghans next month, with other regions of Helmand being handed over every six to eight months. But the commander cautioned that the transition process would proceed slowly, in large part because he expected the Taliban to step up their attacks on Afghan security personnel and other targets in and around Lashkar Gah.
"It's going to be a continuous process all the way through to 2014," he said.
The takeaway from Toolan's remarks is that redeploying troops within Afghanistan, like so much else about the war, is going to take a considerable amount of time. The U.S. may be shifting troops around as the first of the surge forces return home, but the American military presence in Afghanistan won't be ending anytime soon.